Steve Williams knows what it’s like to be proud to build a family business that makes signs installed across the country.
As CEO of Harbinger, he knows what it takes to keep 89 employees busy with design and manufacturing in Jacksonville. Five years ago, when he took over from his father, Roger Williams, the company was busy making signs for various local and regional businesses. But a national customer, 7-Eleven, accounted for the bulk of Harbinger’s business.
At one point, Harbinger was the only company making signs for 7-Eleven convenience stores nationwide. One special project was for 8,000 panels fabricated in Jacksonville in a 63,000 square foot building at 5300 Shad Road.
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So when the pandemic hit in 2020, Harbinger was well positioned financially for the crisis. It was the year the company recorded record sales of $19 million, the highest revenue since the company was founded in 1962.
But what a difference a year can make. Williams said that one day in February 2021, he received a letter from 7-Eleven stating that Harbinger’s services were no longer needed.
“They broke up with us with a letter after 25 years,” said Williams, the sign company’s third-generation chef. “We later found out that 7 Eleven had acquired Speedway and we were no longer part of their supplier business.”
Suddenly, the company lost 80% of its turnover. In 2021, revenue dropped to $12 million. Harbinger was forced to reduce its workforce to 63 employees.
“After the big shock we got a cushion,” he said. “They let us complete work that was already underway.”
A diverse customer base protects your business
I have covered small businesses for many years and have learned from many small business owners how easy it is to take care of an important client. It makes perfect sense for a business to want customers who are easy to work with, who have the right budget, and who appreciate the service you provide.
But unfortunately, when that customer represents the vast majority of business, it doesn’t take long to quickly go from prosperity to jamming if they decide they no longer want to continue doing business together.
Harbinger has been making signs for decades. The company has always worked for convenience stores like Lil’ Champ and oil companies like Gate. Williams said that in the 1980s and 1990s, Harbinger made nearly every major sign in downtown Jacksonville, including buildings now known as Wells Fargo, TIAA, Ameris, Gulf Life and Vystar. Harbinger is known for a variety of signage, ranging from small custom signs to large retailers and national restaurant chains.
Last year, when Harbinger lost his main account, Williams said he didn’t know it at the time, but it was one of the best things that could have happened to his business. This forced the company to focus on finding new business and continuing to work with other long-time customers.
Christian Harden, managing partner and owner of NAI Hallmark, a Jacksonville-based full-service commercial real estate firm, said he has been a Harbinger client for about 10 years. His company is part of a managed network that includes 400 offices nationally and internationally.
NAI leases and/or manages approximately six million square feet of commercial real estate. The portfolio includes office, industrial, retail and medical.
While Harbinger has created a variety of panels for NAI and its customers, Harden said the company is more than a panel company.
“It is a very sophisticated operation and they facilitate the process. Some people think installing a sign is just about manufacturing, but there’s so much more to it, including permits and approvals. They take care of the whole process. They understand how to navigate the process seamlessly and they understand branding. »
“They are so much more than a sign company. They understand the role of brand positioning. Whether it’s a single location or multiple locations nationwide, they can handle it. One of our business principles is to support businesses that engage in the community, and this is a civically engaged signage business. Steve has always been a steward of the arts.
A good culture helps get back to basics
Williams, 54, who is also an artist, said he chose to open a contemporary art gallery outside the company’s headquarters when they moved there in 2010. He opened Pedestrian in 1997, a contemporary art gallery in the Five Points area of Riverside. .
So even though the sign company is a manufacturer, the employees also have the benefit of working in an artistic environment.
A particular employee, however, is not attracted to the company for that part of the corporate environment. Sam Dracas said he loves making signs at Harbinger because he’s allowed to be creative in the vast field of manufacturing. The Kingston, Jamaica native said he has been painting since he was 15 and worked at Harbinger for nine years.
“Put me in a booth and I can do magic. Joining Harbinger is the best decision I’ve ever made in my life,” he said. “The culture here is like a family.”
“I love working here because they support you and allow you to grow. They leave me alone. It’s a form of trust. They trust those they hire and they support you,” said said Dracas. “I have no problem staying here another 20 years.”
Williams said he does his best to appreciate the employees, and while losing the company’s biggest client was terrible, he’s glad he was forced to reconnect with his company. The TV show “Undercover Boss” comes to mind, he said, because for the first time in a very long time he was more involved in all aspects of the business.
“Sometimes you have to take two steps back to go two steps forward. And as the client (7-Eleven) grew, we couldn’t focus on our sales team and processes. We couldn’t get a base to grow from,” Williams said.
“Now we’ve done the work to grow the sales team and our processes are in place. We’re ready to grow,” he said.